Messy Lives on the Upper Guinea Coast: The Church Missionary Society and its Representatives

As the first recipients of Hakluyt Society Research Grants are finishing up their projects, we are delighted to share several of their findings on this blog. In this post, Dr. Katrina Keefer (Trent University) explains how her research on body marking and identity in West Africa led her to the archives of the Church Missionary Society and delve into the ‘messy lives’ of German-speaking Lutheran missionaries in early nineteenth-century Sierra Leone.


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When I first began to explore the correspondence of the various Church Missionary Society’s agents in Sierra Leone during the summer of 2011, I confess that I knew very little about them. I was primarily conducting research about how body marks and identity were connected, and was hoping to find evidence of drawn or described body marks such as tattoos and scarification. Missionary accounts seemed like a good place to begin, but as it happened, I never did find descriptions of scarification or tattoo.

What I found were lives. And as I read further, researching the authors and working to reconstruct the trajectories of their pupils, I realized how fascinating, complex and unplanned those lives were. It has become a sort of running joke to me that I ought to pitch these lives to ‘HBO’ as a series, because they remain so endlessly engrossing and chaotic. They are, to paraphrase Joseph Miller, “messy.”

I moved through various phases as I worked with these documents and the snippets of lives contained within them. There were three main threads and narratives, and following each of them was fascinating and intriguing.

There were the sometimes heart-breaking stories of the seven main authors – each was a German-speaking man originating from central and northern Europe. This was itself startling to realise, as the nested assumptions concerning the early CMS in Sierra Leone tended to be that they were English, or with greater knowledge, that the missionaries were simply ‘Germans.’ The problem of course with this was that there was no ‘Germany’ at the time, and learning the origins of each man was itself compelling, because it began to explain their distribution within the colony and hinterlands.

That sociocultural division also began to illuminate the many tensions and divisions which were present between missionaries, and which were otherwise baffling. The first two men – Peter Hartwig and Melchior Renner – evidently loathed one another to such a degree that one document penned by Governor Thomas Ludlom explained that they could not be permitted in the same place without a chaperone.

A resolution by the Corresponding Committee dated from 30 September 1806 reads that Renner and Hartwig were no longer allowed to go out together, “on account of the frequent disagreements which have already occurred between Messrs Renner and Hartwig and from their avowed repugnance to act in concert, or even to live together.”

Bashia
“Plan of Bashia Settlement” This 1817 illustration’s creator is unknown, but represents the proposed plan for the rebuilding of Bashia after it was damaged by fire. The building was originally called “Gray’s Factory” and was a slave trading factory which was given to the missionaries by Benjamin Curtis in 1805/1806 in return for the agreed-upon education of the local slave traders’ children. CMS/CA1/E6/5

Reading more carefully, I learned that Hartwig, a Prussian draft-dodger, was torn desperately between the instructions of the colonial authorities, the dictates of the missionary society, and his increasing distaste for the relatively lax lifestyle within Freetown at the time. This emerged in strident sermons whenever he was in the colony, and he was faced with steadily worsening responses from Ludlom and other officials, who challenged him again and again to justify his excursions up-country (he was instructed by the CMS itself to go inland in order to establish a mission settlement, it must be noted).

Within the correspondence of this period, the incredible tension is clear between colony and missionary, while for the Swabian Renner, similar frustration emerges throughout. He felt trapped within Freetown, made to serve as Chaplain to the Colony when like Hartwig, he had been instructed to journey into the interior, but was not permitted to do so. His resentment of Hartwig and his intense frustration all are clear additional emphatic indications of these currents of anger and miscommunication, which were hallmarks of this point in the colony.

After the arrival of other missionaries, and the 1807 dismissal of Hartwig and his subsequent castigation and branding as a slave trader, matters eased somewhat, and the narratives of the missionaries change to excitement in their correspondence. Finally, they were able to largely travel as a group up country, establishing the first and arguably most important of their early schools: Bashia on the Pongo river. Now the first two threads, which were centred on the tension between missionaries and colonial authorities, are joined by the third.

Freed to preach and teach, the correspondence becomes insightful and illuminating especially with respect to the local people. From the amateur ethnography of Gustavus Reinhold Nylander on the Bullom Shore at Yongroo Pomoh writing lengthy descriptions of funeral customs, of Poro ritual, or of red water trials, to Renner at Bashia taking down the opinion of the local headmen concerning slavery, these documents become invaluable as scholarly sources.

Kolloh devil
“Kolloh Devil” is a drawing appended to G.R. Nylander’s 1815 letter to CMS Secretary Josiah Pratt, in which he describes a masquerade he saw among the Bullom with whom he worked. His letter and this drawing are one of the earliest representations of a Poro ritual, and of maskers. CMS/CA1/E5/13.

I find that in transcribing this material, I am continually shocked by how rich it is. Accounts of smallpox epidemics, or conflicts between Royal Africa Squadron ships and local villagers, of personal tragedies as when Nylander’s son died, and of large traumas, as when Charles Christian Frederick Wenzel writes about the hardships facing Liberated African children in Kissy Town. The pictures painted within the documents are vibrant and evocative.

It is also the raw narratives about working alongside and around slave traders while acting on behalf of an abolitionist society that make this other aspect of the material so engrossing. The missionaries had opened schools for the most part, almost by accident, and their student reports offer unvarnished snapshots of children along the upper Guinea coast in the early nineteenth century. These children were the sons and daughters of local elites, or of local slave traders, or were themselves former slaves. Missionaries like John Godfrey Wilhelm produced a welter of blunt commentaries on his students. These range from high praise and warmth to clear frustration with certain students.

Throughout my reading of these extraordinarily rich and compelling materials, I am struck by how utterly human the people within them are. Flawed, chaotic, and at times ludicrous, both the authors and their subjects give their readers a perspective on this period which permits important conclusions regionally.

The missionaries were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts to convert. It’s almost laughable how thoroughly Nylander was rebuffed by the villagers on the Bullom Shore. And yet through their schools, these men and their largely unheard wives educated a remarkably diverse group of pupils who went on to open their own schools in turn.

That more than anything else is the lasting legacy of their work – the “Athens of West Africa” which Sierra Leone became was due to a nucleus of westernized children who passed through the CMS schools and the hands of those flawed but fascinating missionaries.


Katrina Keefer is an Adjunct Professor at Trent University, Ontario, Canada. She is a cultural historian who specializes in identity, body marking, slavery, and initiatory societies in West Africa. She is a contributor to the Liberated Africans Project and the Studies in the History of the African Diaspora – Documents (SHADD) projects, both of which engage with biography in the Atlantic world. Keefer is working on a large-scale digital humanities project on using permanent body marks to better discern origins and birthplace. She has previously published on CMS missionary biographies, scarification, Poro, and identity in Sierra Leone.


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Grant, the Nile Expedition and Colonisation

The latest Hakluyt Society publication,  ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this third post, he reflects on the theme of post-colonial readings of exploration, seeking to provide a more historicised portrayal of Grant that challenges popular views of him as a ‘colonialist explorer’.


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In the early twenty-first century, much popular and academic opinion tends to roundly condemn anything to do with Britain’s past activities in overseas regions as ‘imperialism’ or ‘colonialism’. These activities are, by definition, reprehensible exploitation of non-Western peoples.

It is not politically correct to write about the so-called exploiters. An explorer like Grant is clearly, it is supposed, part of the exploitation processes. His ‘false modesty’ and ‘false philanthropy’ must be exposed. Hence, to give only one example, what I believe was intended as a little joke to be played on Grant by his companion Speke, has been interpreted by post-colonial writers and commentators as an assertion of cultural superiority over the inferior Africans.

The two pictures here (figures 1 and 2) tell the story. Grant attempted to depict a dance as shown in figure 1. The picture was adapted by the engraver working on Speke’s 1863 book to show Grant – drawn as a comic book Scotsman complete with deerstalker – dancing with a bare-breasted African female, called Ukulima as shown in  figure 2. I believe Speke arranged to have the picture so engraved in order to play a little joke on his fellow Indian Army officer.

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Figure 1. The Dance at Doondah in Ukuni, 23 June 1861. This is the original version of the picture which was misrepresented in the version which appeared in Speke, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile p. 138, with Grant wearing Scottish-style clothes inserted as dancing with a female.

 

Figure 2 blog 3 dance engraving
Figure 2. How Speke’s book, p.138, showed the dance with Ukulima who has been transformed into a female and Grant into a comic-book Scot.

In fact, Ukulima was an elderly Nyamwezi chief who was undoubtedly male. Grant’s original picture, as may be noted, does not show Ukulima or himself.

It seems to me absurd to read into Speke’s joke picture serious assertions about the expedition as an exercise in cultural imperialism. Grant, the representative of an advanced civilisation demonstrates his superiority by contrasting himself with the ‘primitive’ African woman. There are other examples, such as Grant drawing what he noted might one day be a steamboat on Lake Victoria (figure 3). This has been seen as an example of Grant demonstrating that he was ‘monarch of all he surveyed’. But Grant drew the picture to amuse his African porters. At the time, incidentally, as for most of the trip, he was entirely at the mercy of the African peoples he encountered, not in any sort of position of power.

This is not to deny that Grant was an imperialist of a kind and moreover someone who after 1864 did his best to promote activities which he believed would ‘redeem’ Africa and provide African peoples with a happier future. His imperialism was probably of a kind which reflected Palmerston’s mid-century brand of ‘free trade imperialism’, with everyone recognising that no British government would be willing to take over new territories to rule.

In other words, one should attempt to provide an accurate and understanding account of Britain’s overseas activities in the past and the assumptions that were made about them at the time. At the period of Grant’s expedition and for the next twenty years, no-one could have foreseen that the Scramble for Africa would take place in the 1880s and 1890s. Even if the details of what occurred were moulded by African events, that it happened at all was probably for global international relations reasons as new powers arose to challenge the previous hegemony of the Europeans, notably as far as Africa was concerned, Britain and France.

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Figure 3. Grant’s first view of Lake Victoria at Mwengaruka Bay on the 9th May 1862 when he was at the north west corner looking towards the Sese Islands. The steamship and two other large vessels were imaginary: Grant inserted them to amuse his African companions and to forecast what he hoped would be the future.

The final part of the Introduction to my Hakluyt Society edition of Grant’s Walk surveys the actual historical situation in East Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century and goes on to survey the literature which has dealt – or failed to deal — with Grant and the other explorers of East Africa.

Grant was certainly not a colonialist explorer but a distinguished and worthy traveller. He was, nevertheless, one who was inevitably a child of his time who cannot be held responsible for the deplorable outrages which were later sometimes perpetrated by those seeking to impose their brand of alien rule on Africa.

If anything, Grant was part of a continuing tradition of attempts to improve the lot of some of his fellow men even if that was in what may be regarded as an over-paternalistic manner. He deserves to be remembered with at least considerable respect and his activities examined, not in the light of some easily-assumed contemporary superior morality, but in the light of the actual situation of his time.


Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.


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‘A Walk Across Africa’: The Nile Source Problem

The latest Hakluyt Society publication,  ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this second post, he goes deeper into the central problem behind the 1860 expedition led by John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant: the 2000-year old question about the source of the Nile.


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When, in 1860, the Royal Geographical Society decided to send Speke and Grant to search for the source of the world’s longest river, the Nile, they were asking the two men to settle not only a series of arguments and disputed information which had arisen during the 1850s, but also arguments and speculations which had interested the learned world for over two thousand years or more.

The immediate problem was that the RGS, founded in 1830, had become a powerful almost quasi-official institution keen to garner accurate geographical information but also perhaps to use that information in the service of especially British overseas interests. A knowledge base would be provided for the officials and service personnel who operated around the world, and not least those concerned with the Middle East and the sea approaches from the Indian Ocean to the all-important India. Hence East Africa began to be seen as part of that interest.

In East Africa itself, developing economic activities in the Indian Ocean region had begun to attract Africans to go down to the coast to sell their ivory or their own labour. Soon Arab and Swahili traders from Zanzibar and the coast towns began more frequently to penetrate inland. As a result, uncertain information filtered out to Europeans about lakes and mountains in the interior and this stimulated speculation on the Nile source which surely had to be somewhere in that region.

In 1856, the RGS commissioned Richard Burton, who already had a great reputation as a traveller in India, Arabia, and Somaliland, to go inland and search for the lakes and the Nile source. Burton chose as his companion, John Hanning Speke, the fellow Indian Army officer who had been with him in Somaliland. Travelling along the ‘caravan’ route from the Zanzibar Coast to Tabora, the two men went on to reach Lake Tanganyika in 1858. They were unable to discover the lake’s outlet. Whether the lake had any connection to the Nile remained in doubt.

On the way back to the coast, while Burton was ill, Speke made a ‘flying trip’ northwards and reached a lake which he named Lake Victoria and claimed must be the source of the Nile. Burton was less certain of this and was angry and mortified when on his return to England, Speke persuaded the RGS to send him on another expedition to prove his Nile theory. He chose yet another India Army officer, James Augustus Grant, the subject of this book, to accompany him.

Hoping to be met on the Upper Nile by a Welsh trader called John Petherick, the two men travelled on to Buganda and, controversially and unfortunately, only Speke himself visited the spot where the Nile does indeed debouch from Lake Victoria, on 28 July 1862.

Back in England in 1863, Speke found that his old companion Burton now threw doubt on his discovery: Burton insisted that his discovery – Lake Tanganyika – must be the western lake reservoir of the Nile, as shown on maps which interpreted the information on the river’s source provided by the 2nd century AD astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (figure 1). Thus the old and the new arguments and speculations about the Nile were brought together.

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Figure 1. Sir Harry Johnston’s Interpretation of Ptolemy’s Information on the Nile. In his Uganda Protectorate of 1902, Johnston provided this map showing what he claimed was Ptolemy’s concept of the Nile source. Note that the two lakes are designated as Albert and Victoria. Given the fact that he had lived in the region, it is difficult to know where Johnston thought the ‘Lunæ Montes’ could have been.

In the end, Speke was right, but he had died in a shooting accident in September 1864. Argument went on. Perhaps, some people argued, Speke’s discovery was Ptolemy’s Eastern lake reservoir while the Western was actually not Tanganyika but another lake discovered by S.W. Baker in 1864, after he had been directed to it by Grant’s map. Incidentally he, Baker, named his discovery, perhaps inevitably, Lake Albert.

It is my contention in the Hakluyt Society edition of Grant’s Walk that the information from Ptolemy is nonsense and that the credulity about it that was displayed in the 1860s and has continued to be demonstrated, even in the twenty-first century, is badly misplaced, to say the least. Rather, I argue, the Nile source problem should be examined not in terms of the arguments between Burton and Speke or the alleged information from Ptolemy (which incidentally helped to push Livingstone to his death), but in terms of geography and, more particularly, the geomorphological history of the Upper Nile.

In this respect, the book offers a major new insight into the Nile problem and so provides an important perspective on the expedition of which Grant’s information and pictures provide such a vital record.

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Figure 2. Grant’s February 1863 map showing the Result of the Expedition. As reproduced in the Illustrated London News of 4th July 1863 shortly after the return of Grant and Speke, this gave the RGS and others in Britain an immediate idea of what the expedition had achieved. Most notably, the map identified the source of the Nile as being in Lake Victoria. However, it also showed how Grant interpreted the general layout of lakes and rivers in East Africa and the upper Nile whilst the Expedition was still in progress.

Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.


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Publication: Hakluyt & Oxford

New Publication:

Hakluyt & Oxford

Many followers of the Hakluyt’s Society’s blog will remember the exhibitions, lectures, and conference held at Oxford in autumn 2016 to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Richard Hakluyt’s death in November 1616. As a record of these events the Hakluyt Society has published Hakluyt & Oxford: Essays and Exhibitions Marking the Quatercentenary of the Death of Richard Hakluyt in 1616, edited by Anthony Payne and now available for sale at £5 (excluding postage) via the Hakluyt Society’s website.


 

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The booklet of 112 pages with eight coloured illustrations includes three essays based on lectures given at the various events, the catalogue notes of the two exhibitions and the conference programme, as follows:

Hakluyt, Aristotle and Oxford

Anthony Payne

Instruments and Practical Mathematics in the Commonwealth of Richard Hakluyt

Jim Bennett

Richard Hakluyt: From Oxford to the Moon

William Poole

Richard Hakluyt and Geography in Oxford 1550–1650

An Exhibition at Christ Church

Hakluyt: The World in a Book

An Exhibition at the Bodleian

Richard Hakluyt and the Renaissance Discovery of the World

Conference Programme


Cover image Hakluyt and Oxford


Anthony Payne is a past Vice-President of the Hakluyt Society, and with Daniel Carey and Claire Jowitt, organised the Society’s Richard Hakluyt quatercentenary events in 2016. He is currently working on a major bibliographical study of Hakluyt and has previously published an introductory survey, Richard Hakluyt: A Guide to His Books and to Those Associated with Him 1580–1625 (London: Quaritch, 2008).


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Hakluyt Society Editorial Workshop, London, Friday 4 May 2018

The Hakluyt Society invites anyone interested in editing primary source texts for publication for its first *free* editorial workshop.

The first one-day Hakluyt Society Editorial Workshop will take place on Friday 4 May at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. There will be a range of contributions from scholars who are or have been involved with Hakluyt Society published volumes, including substantial talks from Professor Michael Brennan, Dr Angela Byrne and Professor Joyce Lorimer.

 The aims of the workshop are to encourage interest in the academic editing of texts for publication and to offer practical support and advice to those engaged on editing projects. While the emphasis will be on the Society’s approach to text editing, the workshop will be of value to anyone involved with or contemplating such work. If you think you might be interested, this would be a good ‘taster’ opportunity. There is no charge and lunch will be provided.

 Members of the Society have already been circulated and there are some places left to which anyone interested would be welcome. Please simply tell me (jim.bennett@mhs.ox.ac.uk) that you would like to come and I will send you the details, provided we still have places.

 Jim Bennett

President, The Hakluyt Society

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Hakluyt Society Research Funding 2018

For the third year in succession, the Hakluyt Society in pleased to announce its annual round of Research Funding. In furtherance of the principal objects of the Hakluyt Society, to promote the study of historical exploration, travel, and worldwide cultural encounter, the Society operates two schemes of research funding. These are:

  • The Hakluyt Society Research Grant, up to six of which will be available per calendar year, with a maximum allocation of £1500 each.
  • The Hakluyt Society Short-Term Fellowship, two of which will be available per calendar year. The Fellowship may be held for a maximum of four months, with a maximum allowance of £1650 per month. 

These funding opportunities are open to anyone whose research interests meet with and promote the objects of the Hakluyt Society. All applicants must be members of the Hakluyt Society, and applications must be received by 31 January 2018.

Please ensure that you have read the guidelines below before completing the Application Form.


 

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Guidelines

1. Hakluyt Society funding is given to support and extend the stated aims of the Society. The primary aim of the Society is ‘to advance knowledge and education by the publication of scholarly editions of primary records of voyages, travels and other geographical material’. In addition, the Society also undertakes and supports activities supplementary to its primary role as a publisher of scholarly texts: ‘by organizing and participating in meetings, symposia and conferences which contribute to an increased awareness of geographical exploration and cultural encounter’. Applicants should state clearly in their application how the proposed project meets the aims of the Society

2. The applicant must be a member of the Hakluyt Society at the time of application. (For further information about membership and the activities of the Hakluyt Society, please visit www.hakluyt.com).

3. In completing the form, applicants should make clear which one of the two funding sources is being applied for. It is not possible to apply for both of the funding sources in the same year. In the event of successful application, further financial support from the Society will not normally be considered within two years.

4. The Abstract should be written in language suitable for a non-academic audience and outline the importance and timeliness of the work proposed and its fit to the work of the Society. The section Description of the Research, should place the nature of the research proposed in relation to the relevant scholarly literature and identify the originality and significance of the work proposed.

5. Where relevant, the library/archive or other repository to be visited should be identified, as should the expected time frame in which the research will be undertaken. The application should detail the number of working days that will be spent at the library/archive/repository in question.

6. The Budget must give projected costs in as much detail as possible, and should justify the levels of expenditure proposed.

7. Plans for communication of the research should be fully explained. These should also be realistic and precisely stated.

8. Applicants should note that the funding is intended to cover the costs associated with the conduct of research (including reasonable travel and subsistence expenses), and is not for an applicant’s ongoing maintenance expenses during the period of research. Maintenance can be paid, however, for periods when the research requires the applicant to live away from home. Please note that Hakluyt Society research funding is for research with identifiable publication plans only and may not be used simply for dissertation research or write-up. Funding will not be given for computer hardware or software costs. If applicants are in any doubt over allowable costs, they are advised to contact the Society.

9. Successful applicants are required to acknowledge the support of the Hakluyt Society in any resultant Hakluyt Society publication, other research publication or in events of outreach and dissemination.

10. The maximum sum available for a Hakluyt Society Research Grant (HSRG) is £1500. Normally, there will be up to six Hakluyt Society Research Grants available in any one research funding year (April to March). Normally, there will be two Hakluyt Society Short-Term Fellowships available in any funding year. The Hakluyt Society Short-Term Fellowship (HSSTF) may be held for a maximum of four calendar months. The maximum sum available for the Hakluyt Society Short-Term Fellowship will be £1650 per calendar month (i.e., the maximum sum that may be sought is £6600). Normally, there will be two Hakluyt Society Short-Term Fellowship available in any one funding year.

Normally, in the event of successful application, the sum awarded will be paid directly to the named applicant. It is the applicant’s responsibility to provide the Society with full details of the bank account into which the award should be paid. Upon completion of the project for which an award has been made, the applicant is expected to provide the Society with a summary of the expenditure, with itemized receipts for the same, a brief report of the work undertaken and a blog post on the work or some aspect of it, suitable for publication on the Hakluyt Society Blog. The Society (at office@hakluyt.com) would like to receive the summary of expenditure, report and blog post as soon as possible after the research is completed, but requires them no later than one month after the research funding year, i.e. by 30 April 2019.

11. Successful candidates will receive notification of the outcome of their application. Due to the volume of applications, please note that the Society is unable to enter into correspondence on individual unsuccessful applications. The Society reserves the right to invite selected unsuccessful candidates to develop their proposals further to reapply in subsequent rounds, and may provide additional feedback in such cases.


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Trading Companies and Travel Literature: Looking back on #Hakluyt17

Trading Companies and Travel Literature are hot. Joining these two foci of historical and literary analysis works even better. This is the short conclusion from the overwhelming success of the Hakluyt Society Symposium, the first of its kind, held at Chatham Historic Dockyards on 11-12 September 2017. Entitled Trading Companies and Travel Literature, this international event, sponsored by the Hakluyt Society and organised in collaboration with PEIC of the University of Kent, brought together more than fifty historians, literary scholars, and members of the public for two days of rich interdisciplinary exchange. In this blog, one of the symposium’s organisers, Guido van Meersbergen (University of Warwick) looks back on the symposium and its outcomes.


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#Hakluyt17

One month after the Hakluyt Society Symposium in Chatham, I look back on the event with great pleasure and satisfaction. Run by Edmond Smith (PEIC), Aske Brock (PEIC), and myself, and financed by a generous award from the Hakluyt Society’s Harry & Grace Smith Fund, the symposium was a resounding success. This was due not only to the stunning environment of the Historic Dockyard in Chatham – and particularly the magnificent Royal Dockyard Church – which provided #Hakluyt17 with the best possible historical and maritime framing; but above all to the consistently high academic quality of papers presented and collegial and constructive discussion held over the course of two stimulating days.

As always in these matters, the people mattered most. In addition to sizeable delegations from both the Hakluyt Society and the University of Kent, the symposium welcomed a large number of attendees from institutions all over the UK as well as places further afield, including the US, India, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and Ireland. All together, Trading Companies and Travel Literature attracted over fifty delegates, some twenty of whom students and Early Career Researchers. Participation of the latter group was generously supported by financial support from the Hakluyt Society and the Society for Renaissance Studies. The Hakluyt Society also awarded a total of six Bursaries covering travel expenses for early career speakers.

These circumstances combined to ensure that even a Chatham-wide power outage on 12 September, which caused some degree of confusion on Day 2 of the symposium, did little to disrupt the event’s good humoured collegiality.

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Hakluyt Society Symposium early career delegates outside the Royal Dockyard Church.
For a pictorial impression of the event, Hakluyt Society Symposium 2017 in 100 Images, check out our Facebook page.

Trading Companies and Travel Literature

Aimed at examining travel literature and trading companies within the same framework of analysis, the symposium’s seven panels focused on critical issues ranges from the production and uses of travel literature, the way travel writing was employed to promote trading companies and colonial or imperial projects, to approaches to non-European voices and the materiality of information. Questions addressed included:

  • How did Companies and non-corporate groups (private merchants, missionaries, diplomats, Crown-sponsored colonial enterprises) gather, collect, protect, promote and utilise travel literature?
  • In what ways do the manuscript and printed material created by companies serve as lenses through which to understand the early modern ‘globalising’ world, and how do they obscure, distort, or limit this understanding?
  • How did ideas originating in manuscript form within Company administrations come to circulate in print and what were its consequences for the circulation of ideas and images about the world within Europe and beyond?
  • How did travel literature emerging outside the Companies shape and affect Company policies?
  • What were the roles of non-European voices and agency in (the production of) Company sources and travel literature?
  • What were the implications of secrecy, forgery and fraudulent material for corporate and non-corporate colonial operations?
  • How did the materiality of information affect its message and uses?
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Professor Jyotsna Singh (Michigan State University) presenting the keynote address

On the evening of day 1, the keynote address was delivered by Professor Jyotsna Singh (Michigan State University), whose work on the Global Renaissance has dealt extensively with early modern travel writing and East India Company accounts. Her stimulating lecture, chaired by Hakluyt Society President, Professor Jim Bennett, was entitled The East India Company and English Encounters with Islam in Mughal India.

The symposium also featured a Hakluyt Society Editorial Workshop, led by Professor Will Ryan and Dr Katie Parker, which offered attendees first-hand experience of the attractions and challenges of editing primary accounts to the standards required by the Society.

Outcomes

Rather than simply relishing the memory of a successful event, steps have already been taken to ensure a positive follow-up. Encouraged by the outcome of the Kent symposium – which met the Society’s principal aims of 1) increasing the public awareness of historical travel, exploration and worldwide cultural encounter; 2) generating exposure for the Society’s activities; and 3) stimulating interdisciplinary conversation, engaging younger scholars, and creating a bridge between academic and lay audiences – the Hakluyt Society is committed to establishing its symposia on a biannual footing.

First preparations for a 2019 Hakluyt Society Symposium to be held in Leiden are already underway, following an agreement of principle between the Society’s President, Jim Bennett, its Symposium Coordinator, Guido van Meersbergen, and Professor of Maritime History of Leiden University, Michiel van Groesen. One reason to particularly look forward to a 2019 symposium in Leiden would be the intended participation of the Linschoten-Vereeniging, our Dutch sister society.

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Hakluyt Society Symposium 2017 organisers (from left to right), Guido van Meersbergen, Edmond Smith, and Aske Brock.

Output

However, the most tangible future output of the Hakluyt Society Symposium will be a collection of essays edited by the symposium organisers and including chapters from a selection of speakers. This book will present the first focused investigation of the multifaceted relationships between European trading companies and the ways in which they collected, curated, protected, and utilised material relating to travel and exploration across the early modern world. Edmond, Aske, and I intend for this edited collection, on which we will work over the next year or two together with our excellent speakers, to appear as a volume in the Hakluyt Society Extra Series.

Finally, we will produce a conference report for the Society for Renaissance Studies (SRS), which generously supported the symposium with a conference grant. This report is due to appear in the Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies.

Dr Guido van Meersbergen is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick, where he is a member of the Global History and Culture Centre. Since 2013 he has been a Council Member of the Hakluyt Society, and he is currently acting as the Society’s social media manager and Symposium Coordinator. Guido’s research and teaching focuses on early modern global history, particularly cross-cultural diplomacy, ethnographic discourse, and the Dutch and English East India Companies in South Asia. Guido received his PhD from University College London (UCL) and has previously held the Max Weber Fellowship at the European University Institute (EUI).


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